Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

All scientific work is incomplete—whether it be observational or experimental. All scientific work is liable to be upset or modified by advancing knowledge. That does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have, to postpone action that it appears to demand at a given time. Who knows, asks Robert Browning, but the world may end tonight? True, but on available evidence most of us make ready to commute on the 8:30 next day.9

As University of California professor Stanton Glantz and his colleagues have shown in their exhaustive reading of tobacco industry documents, by the early 1960s the industry’s own scientists had concluded not only that smoking caused cancer, but also that nicotine was addictive (a conclusion that mainstream scientists came to only in the 1980s, and the industry would continue to deny well into the 1990s).58

Bad, bad science. You can practically see the fingers wagging. Scientists had been bad boys; it was time for them to behave themselves. The tobacco industry would be the daddy who made sure they did. It wasn’t just money at stake; it was individual liberty. Today, smoking, tomorrow … who knew? By protecting smoking, we protected freedom.

Call it the “Tobacco Strategy.” Its target was science, and so it relied heavily on scientists—with guidance from industry lawyers and public relations experts—willing to hold the rifle and pull the trigger. Among the multitude of documents we found in writing this book were Bad Science: A Resource Book—a how-to handbook for fact fighters, providing example after example of successful strategies for undermining science, and a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite.14

Chris Mooney documented how in just a few years Exxon Mobil had channeled more than $8 million to forty different organizations that challenged the scientific evidence of global warming. The organizations did not just include probusiness and conservative think tanks, but also “quasi-journalistic outlets like (a website providing ‘news, analysis, research, and commentary’ that received $95,000 from ExxonMobil in 2003), a columnist, and even religious and civil rights groups.

Conventional statistics is set up to be skeptical and avoid type 1 errors. The 95 percent confidence standard means that there is only 1 chance in 20 that you believe something that isn’t true. That is a very high bar. It reflects a scientific worldview in which skepticism is a virtue, credulity is not.90 As one Web site puts it, “A type I error is often considered to be more serious, and therefore more important to avoid, than a type II error.”91 In fact, some statisticians claim that type 2 errors aren’t really errors at all, just missed opportunities.

Conversely, if the claim is rejected, the honest scientist is expected to accept that judgment, and move on to other things. In science, you don’t get to keep harping on a subject until your opponents just give up in exhaustion.

C. P. Snow once argued that foolish faith in authority is the enemy of truth.

Did all of Singer’s efforts to discredit mainstream science matter? When asked in 1995 where he got his assessments of ozone depletion, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, probably the most powerful man in Congress at the time, said, “my assessment is from reading people like Fred Singer.”93

Economists have a term for these costs—a less reassuring one than Friedman’s “neighborhood effects.” They are “negative externalities”: negative because they aren’t beneficial and external because they fall outside the market system. Those who find this hard to accept attack the messenger, which is science.

For the past 150 years, industrial civilization has been dining on the energy stored in fossil fuels, and the bill has come due. Yet, we have sat around the dinner table denying that it is our bill, and doubting the credibility of the man who delivered it.

From its earliest, days, science has been associated with institutions—the Accademia dei Lincei, founded in 1609, the Royal Society in Britain, founded in 1660, the Académie des Sciences in France, founded in 1666—because scholars (savants and natural philosophers as they were variously called before the nineteenth-century invention of the word “scientist”) understood that to create new knowledge they needed a means to test each other’s claims.

History shows us clearly that science does not provide certainty. It does not provide proof. It only provides the consensus of experts, based on the organized accumulation and scrutiny of evidence.

If you believed in capitalism, you had to attack science, because science had revealed the hazards that capitalism had brought in its wake. The biggest hazard of them all—one that could truly affect the entire planet—was just at that moment coming to public attention: global warming. Global warming would become the mother of all environmental issues, because it struck at the very root of economic activity: the use of energy. So perhaps not surprisingly, the same people who had questioned acid rain, doubted the ozone hole, and defended tobacco now attacked the scientific evidence of global warming.

In 1984 Bill Nierenberg retired as director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and joined the Board of Directors of the George C. Marshall Institute. As we saw earlier, Robert Jastrow had established the Institute to defend President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative against attack by other scientists. But by 1989, the enemy that justified SDI was rapidly disappearing. The Warsaw Pact had fallen apart, the Soviet Union itself was disintegrating, and the end of the Cold War was in sight. The Institute might have disbanded—its raison d’être disappeared—but instead, the old Cold Warriors decided to fight on. The new enemy? Environmental “alarmists.” In 1989—the very year the Berlin Wall fell—the Marshall Institute issued its first report attacking climate science. Within a few years, they would be attacking climate scientists as well.

In case after case, Fred Singer, Fred Seitz, and a handful of other scientists joined forces with think tanks and private corporations to challenge scientific evidence on a host of contemporary issues. In the early years, much of the money for this effort came from the tobacco industry; in later years, it came from foundations, think tanks, and the fossil fuel industry. They claimed the link between smoking and cancer remained unproven. They insisted that scientists were mistaken about the risks and limitations of SDI. They argued that acid rain was caused by volcanoes, and so was the ozone hole. They charged that the Environmental Protection Agency had rigged the science surrounding secondhand smoke. Most recently—over the course of nearly two decades and against the face of mounting evidence—they dismissed the reality of global warming. First they claimed there was none, then they claimed it was just natural variation, and then they claimed that even if it was happening and it was our fault, it didn’t matter because we could just adapt to it. In case after case, they steadfastly denied the existence of scientific agreement, even though they, themselves, were pretty much the only ones who disagreed.

In the 1950s, the tobacco industry realized that they could protect their product by casting doubt on the science and insisting the dangers of smoking were unproven. In the 1990s, they realized that if you could convince people that science in general was unreliable, then you didn’t have to argue the merits of any particular case, particularly one—like the defense of secondhand smoke—that had no scientific merit. In the demonizing of Rachel Carson, free marketeers realized that if you could convince people that an example of successful government regulation wasn’t, in fact, successful—that it was actually a mistake—you could strengthen the argument against regulation in general.

Nobody can publish an article in a scientific journal claiming the Sun orbits the Earth, and for the same reason, you can’t publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal claiming there’s no global warming. Probably well-informed professional science journalists wouldn’t publish it either. But ordinary journalists repeatedly did.

President George H. W. Bush flew to Rio de Janeiro to sign the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which committed its signatories to preventing “dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system.”107 President Bush then pledged to translate the written document into “concrete action to protect the planet.

Robert Jastrow and William Nierenberg, wrote a report questioning the evidence of global warming.15 They were soon invited to the White House to brief the Bush administration. One member of the Cabinet Affairs Office said of the report: “Everyone has read it. Everyone takes it seriously.”16 It wasn’t just the Bush administration that took these claims seriously; the mass media did, too. Respected media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and many others repeated these claims as if they were a “side” in a scientific debate. Then the claims were repeated again and again and again—as in an echo chamber—by a wide range of people involved in public debate, from bloggers to members of the U.S. Senate, and even by the president and the vice president of the United States. In all of this, journalists and the public never understood that these were not scientific debates—taking place in the halls of science among active scientific researchers—but misinformation, part of a larger pattern that began with tobacco.

Science is pretty much the same. A conclusion becomes established not when a clever person proposes it, or even a group of people begin to discuss it, but when the jury of peers—the community of researchers—reviews the evidence and concludes that it is sufficient to accept the claim.

Singer cited the famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which biologist Garrett Hardin argued that individuals acting in their rational self-interest may undermine the common good, and warned against assuming that technology would save us from ourselves. “If we ignore the present warning signs and wait for an ecological disaster to strike, it will probably be too late,” Singer noted. He imagined what it must have been like to be Noah, surrounded by “complacent compatriots,” saying, “‘Don’t worry about the rising waters, Noah; our advanced technology will surely discover a substitute for breathing.’ If it was wisdom that enabled Noah to believe in the ‘never-yet-happened,’ we could use some of that wisdom now,” Singer concluded.

The industry had realized you could create the impression of controversy simply by asking questions

The problem was that public had no way to know that this “evidence” was part of an industry campaign designed to confuse. It was, in fact, part of a criminal conspiracy to commit fraud.

This is the crux of the issue, the crux of our story. For the shift in the American environmental movement from aesthetic environmentalism to regulatory environmentalism wasn’t just a change in political strategy. It was the manifestation of a crucial realization: that unrestricted commercial activity was doing damage—real, lasting, pervasive damage. It was the realization that pollution was global, not just local, and the solution to pollution was not dilution. This shift began with the understanding that DDT remained in the environment long after its purpose was served. And it grew as acid rain and the ozone hole demonstrated that pollution traveled hundreds or even thousands of kilometers from its source, doing damage to people who did not benefit from the economic activity that produced it. It reached a crescendo when global warming showed that even the most seemingly innocuous by-product of industrial civilization—CO2, the stuff on which plants depend—could produce a very different planet.

Throughout our story, the people involved demanded the right to be heard, insisting that we—the public—had the right to hear both sides and that the media had an obligation to present it. They insisted that this was only fair and democratic. But were they attempting to preserve democracy? No. The issue was not free speech; it was free markets.

Two crucial developments during the presidential campaign year of 1988 changed climate science forever. The first was the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The second was the announcement by climate modeler James E. Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, that anthropogenic global warming had begun. An organized campaign of denial began the following year, and soon ensnared the entire climate science community.

While most physicists had long been accepting military R & D funds, they reacted differently to SDI, fomenting a coordinated effort to block the program. By May 1986, sixty-five hundred academic scientists had signed a pledge not to solicit or accept funds from the missile defense research program, a pledge that received abundant media coverage.

While the idea of equal time for opposing opinions makes sense in a two-party political system, it does not work for science, because science is not about opinion. It is about evidence.

While the idea of equal time for opposing opinions makes sense in a two-party political system, it does not work for science, because science is not about opinion. It is about evidence. It is about claims that can be, and have been, tested through scientific research—experiments, experience, and observation—research that is then subject to critical review by a jury of scientific peers. Claims that have not gone through that process—or have gone through it and failed—are not scientific, and do not deserve equal time in a scientific debate.